Why do we listen

This is how our ears work - why we can hear

Have you often wondered how hearing works? Learn how the human hearing works and how hearing loss can occur. “To be completely ears” - that means something like: Listen carefully. Record everything. If we cannot hear well and our hearing is impaired, we will not fully perceive our environment. But what exactly does the physical apparatus “ear” do? How is a sound passed on and processed in the brain? Why does our hearing decline with age? And is there antiaging for the ears?

From the outside to the inside - this is how sounds travel through the ear canal

The human ear is a fascinating organ. Let's look at it from the outside to the inside: First we see the outer ear with the visible auricle, already visually striking with its numerous seemingly useless flourishes. The shape of the external ear canal is no accident. Because: The auricle collects the sound waves, which propagate through the external "Meatus acousticus externus ossesus" to the eardrum and make it vibrate.

Middle ear

The eardrum is a thin membrane between the outer ear and the so-called middle ear. This middle area contains an air-filled cavity called the tympanic cavity. There are three ossicles inside. Because of their shape, they are called the hammer, anvil and stirrup. The ossicles ensure that the vibrations are passed on to the inner ear.

The middle ear is connected to the mouth via a small tube. This is used to ventilate the middle ear, ensure air supply and pressure equalization. In the event of illness, the Eustachian tube is the way through which bacteria from the nasal and pharynx enter the nose. Such an infection then leads to inflammation of the middle ear.

Inner ear

In addition to the organ of equilibrium, the inner ear contains the so-called snail. Inside it is covered with thousands of fine hair cells. In the snail, also known as the cochlea, there is also fluid, so-called lymph. The incoming sound movements set the lymph in motion, which in turn moves the fine hairs accordingly. The organ of Corti in the inner ear converts the mechanical vibrations into electrical impulses, which then reach the brain from the auditory nerve. In the so-called auditory cortex, the hearing center of the brain, the acoustic information is finally interpreted and classified into language, music, tones, sounds and noises. If the auditory nerve is damaged as a result of injuries or illness, this can lead to hearing loss.

Why we sometimes hear less well

Age

Healthy people can recognize frequencies between 20 and 20,000 Hertz. With age, the spectrum of audible frequencies decreases, sometimes up to senile hearing loss. Usually it is first high frequencies that we no longer perceive so well. We then notice that we can no longer perceive the chirping of birds as well, for example, and that it is more difficult for us to hear, for example, the consonants K and P, S and T or to distinguish them. Hearing impairment is a gradual process and usually takes years, if not decades.

But what exactly happens inside the hearing organ when, with increasing age, we no longer understand all the words and acoustic signals around us correctly or in good time? On the one hand, sensory cells in the inner ear die with age. This is what is called peripheral hearing loss. As a result, less is recorded and as a result the brain gets used to the new listening situation. In other words: the brain no longer misses the missing hearing information, but simply forgets that it was once able to perceive certain things acoustically and how they sounded. The worse state becomes the new normal for the brain.
On the other hand, the processing speed for acoustic signals in the brain can slow down. This so-called central hearing loss also leads to problems in old age. In both cases, a hearing aid can help to improve hearing performance - this in turn gives the patient safety in traffic and social interaction.

Incorrect care with cotton swabs

Ears can only be dirty on the outside. Because: The inside of the sense organ cleans itself. With the ear wax. This is a secretion from the glands of the ear canal. It keeps the skin in the ear canal moist. And because it's greasy, it protects the ear from possible water droplets ingress. Specialists call this lard cerumen. It transports dust, dead skin cells or tiny foreign bodies to the outside. This happens with the help of the small hairs in the ear and whenever we move the masseter muscles so that the muscles in the ear start to move. Cleaning the sensitive sensory organ with cotton swabs causes a small amount of lard to be pushed back, which eventually leads to a plug in front of the eardrum. This in turn leads to a significant hearing loss, because the sound waves no longer pass unhindered through the hearing aid. The treatment is relatively easy: the ear, nose and throat doctor rinses the ear canal with lukewarm water. This loosens the plug and ensures that the patient has good hearing again. Too much wax can make it itchy. Read here what you can do about it.

Ear canal inflammation

"Otitis externa" is what experts call when the external ear canal is inflamed. The inflammation is shown by the fact that the skin in it is reddened and swollen. This can be caused by fungi, viruses or allergies. The patient experiences moderate to severe pain. Hearing may also be impaired depending on the swelling. In any case, a specialist or, in the case of children, a pediatrician should be consulted. An abscess can also form in the ear canal as a result of inflammation in the outer or inner ear or minor injuries to the skin in the ear canal.

Otitis media

Symptoms of otitis media are poor hearing, a fever, and severe ear pain. Such inflammation can result from a runny nose or the flu. Viruses or bacteria are the cause of "oditis media", as the ENT doctor says of otitis media. Independent treatment with home remedies can alleviate the disease. Decongestant nasal drops ensure good ear ventilation. For more severe forms, drugs for pain and antibiotics can be used.

water

Water can lead to hearing loss in two ways: If it penetrates the auricle while showering or bathing, it can cause the ear wax, if it is already stuck to the eardrum as a plug, to swell. Noises then no longer reach the inner ear at the usual volume. If this condition does not go away by itself, a rinse helps. However, with the help of water, bacteria can also enter the ear. This is often the cause of ear infections in the summer season, when bathing lakes or outdoor pools are visited by many.

Enlarged nasal polyps / pharynx

Enlarged tonsils, also called adenoids, can cause hearing loss. This is often the case with babies or toddlers, but it can also affect adults. The pharynx is part of our immune system. It lies behind the nose and to a certain extent catches germs that we inhale through the nose. The almond in the throat, which we can see when we look in the mirror when it swells, is also part of our immune system. It stops fungi, viruses and bacteria. If there are strong growths of the pharynx, this can be seen from the outside. At night, for example, the child sleeps with the head tilted backwards to get air; it snores with pauses in breathing. During the day they breathe a lot through their mouths, eat less, sometimes speak indistinctly or otherwise show language development delays. Surgical removal of the pharynx will help. The little patient usually catches up with the speech delay even without outside help.

Sudden hearing loss

Sudden hearing loss, usually noticeable in one ear, is called sudden hearing loss. Symptoms for this may be ringing in the ears or a feeling of pressure in one ear. After 48 hours at the latest, those affected should consult an ENT doctor. As a result of a sudden hearing loss, the person affected can develop tinnitus.

Tinnitus

Accidents, pop trauma, but also cervical spine diseases or prolonged stress can be the cause of tinnitus. It manifests itself through ringing in the ears, a whistling or constant hissing. Tinnitus can be acute or chronic. And cause a slight hearing loss.

At some point it gets quieter in the ear

The full frequency spectrum is retained until around the age of 20. Middle-aged people can usually still hear sounds up to a frequency range of 12,000 to 14,000 Hertz. In general, we humans hear sounds in the medium frequency range much more strongly - i.e. louder - than very low and very high frequencies.
Many factors influence the development of hearing. Among other things, how well we treat our ears. Profession also plays a role - some people are regularly exposed to higher volume levels at work. That too can lead to premature hearing loss. Bad news for all men: Their hearing deteriorates faster on average than that of women. The good news: You can actually take a bow and with targeted training you can even improve your hearing again!

Can you train your ears?

“You hear worse with age!” - who hasn't heard this sentence from their parents and grandparents? In the meantime, hearing loss is actually nothing that you simply have to put up with: With targeted training, hearing performance can be improved or at least its loss slowed down. No matter what age. But how does it work?
Most listening exercises rely on actively focusing on listening. This sharpens the auditory perception, which can lead to a noticeable increase in hearing performance.
An example: You go to a noisy place, such as a shopping mall. There you try to concentrate on exactly one sound. Alternatively, you can ask yourself a riddle: Which noises do I perceive, what causes them and from which direction do they come?
There is nothing wrong with starting such exercises at 35 or 50 if your hearing is still okay. The "hearing training" can be integrated well as a mindfulness exercise into our everyday life. With it we not only train our hearing, but also do something for our inner calm and concentration. The hearing is a complex and remarkable organ that enables us to do so much: from orientation in the room to enjoying music to our best conversations over a latte macchiato in a café. Therefore, we should value our ears enough to do something for them. A good way to do this is to deal with your own hearing performance in good time and to actively keep your hearing fit and healthy - for example with small exercises in everyday life and adequate protection from noise and volume.

Medical for the hearing

This is how hearing loss can be recognized early

Hearing screening for newborns